An F-35A Lightning II approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker during aerial refueling in May near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The initial cadre of Air Force F-35 instructor pilots at the 33rd Fighter Wing recently qualified in aerial refueling. (Master Sgt. John R. Nimmo Sr. / Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter will be operational for the US Marines in December 2015, followed by the Air Force in December 2016 and the Navy in February 2019.
The initial operating capacity (IOC) dates were delivered to Congress on May 31 and announced shortly thereafter.
IOC will be achieved for each service when they “acquire enough aircraft to establish one operational squadron with enough trained and equipped personnel to support the various missions prescribed by each service,” according to a Pentagon news release. The size of each squadron varies from service to service, with 10 aircraft for the Marines, 12 for the Air Force and 10 for the Navy, according to their service-specific releases.
Of the 2,443 F-35 jets the US plans to purchase, 1,763 will be the Air Force F-35A conventional takeoff model. The 2016 IOC date for the USAF is earlier than previously reported.
The Air Force and the Marines, whose F-35B jump-jet model will be the first to become active, will achieve IOC with the Block 2B software, which is being tested at Edwards AFB in California and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. Although not the final version of the software, 2B allows most defensive capabilities, which would allow the US to use F-35s in conflict.
In comparison, the Navy has decided to wait on declaring IOC for its F-35C carrier variant for the more robust Block 3F software upgrade, according to a Navy spokesperson.
The Pentagon “made a good decision to go for initial operating capability with Block 2B software so they can take the F-35 to war if needed,” Rebecca Grant, an analyst with Iris Research, said. “It’s a smart move and tracks what they did with early IOCs for B-2 and F-22. USAF pilots can drop bombs and fire missiles from the F-35 with the Block 2B software.
“They’ll add other types of weapons down the road along with more capabilities, but this is a great start that puts the F-35 in war plans sooner.”
The IOC decisions are the latest in a series of good news that proponents of the fighter cite as proof the troubled program is on an upswing. In the Pentagon’s selected acquisitions reports released May 23, the program’s overall cost dropped $4.5 billion, the first time costs had decreased.
The setting of a firm IOC date shows that “the worst of the instability has been arrested, and possibly even a little bit reversed,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said. “It implies stabilization, and cost seems to be stabilizing too.”
That could boost confidence among international partners and possibly increase sales for the fifth-generation fighter.
“It’s very difficult for foreign customers to place orders while everything looks like it’s in free fall,” Aboulafia said. “Hopefully, there will be some confidence from this decision.”
Both South Korea and Denmark are debating whether to purchase the F-35 for their fighter replacement programs. The Korean decision is expected this year, perhaps as early as June, while the Danish decision should come in mid-2015.
“We appreciate the confidence in the F-35 program expressed by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy with the announcement of their Initial Operating Capability (IOC) dates today,” Michael Rein, Lockheed spokesman, wrote in a statement. “Our top priority is to continue to execute our plan to support these IOC dates starting with the Marine Corps in December 2015.”